This season’s must-have fashion choices include the pre-pubescent child or the porn star; both one-dimensional images of female passivity and compliance. Where is the space for real, complex women in our culture and in fashion? Lucy Wilkins comments on the new re-packaging of the tired old virgin / whore dichotomy.
As I indulge in my guilty pleasure of scanning this month’s sprawl of magazines I am reliably informed by Elle, Glamour and Grazia et al that I have two key looks to choose from this autumn: top of the latest catwalk trends are the pseudo-masculine “androgenous” look or the cutesy “baby doll” pose. As one magapozine this month enthuses, “you don’t need to be pre-teen to achieve this season’s trend for Lolita-style innocence. With the right make-up you can fake your way to an angelic baby face”.
Excellent. So I’m expected to squeeze and primp my body into either the figure of a svelte young man or pre-pubescent girl. Breasts, hips and bottoms are, as ever, out. Or perhaps, more simply put, women are Not In Fashion.
It is the same old tired story. From every billboard, magazine, and corner of the western world where an image can be placed the media portrays the only acceptable form of femininity as factory produced plastic models of perfection. There is no “real” woman for women to aspire to, only one endless, conveyor-belt chain of identical gooey eyed, stick thin, pouting clone-women. The media’s part in sculpting women into rib protruding, bone jarring thinness, and encouraging the search for botox induced eternal youth has reduced us to the pursuit of attaining the figure of a pre-pubescent girl – or even boy.
The real woman is diminishing – quite literally. Bottoms must be small and compact, stomachs concave, hips and breasts skimmed off. The emerging trend of size 00 indicates how women are, quite literally, wasting away to nothing, their diminishing size worryingly synonymous with diminishing credibility. Victoria Beckam has the waist size of a seven year old, Heather Mills looks breakable, Keira Knightly is invisible in profile. Models 1, the leading agency for London Fashion Week, defend their choice of model by saying “Girls who model at 15 or 16 tend to be thin girls…and obviously they look great in clothes.” So this is what it has come down to? In a consumerist society obsessed with outward appearances and celebrity worship the holy grail of mature womanhood is the anorexic pre-pubescent child.
Well, not quite – worryingly it doesn’t stop there. Combined with the infantilising of women to a child-like status is the insidious mainstreaming of the sexual objectification of women. All those pouting twiglets that grace the covers of our magazines, newspapers, television and cinema screens, have the glossy parted lips and legs of the post orgasmic stupor. Baby doll meets sex doll. Surely the combination of children and sex is the one taboo that society can’t yet condone – and yet here in a subtle and damaging way it is merging the two images, creating the suggestion of acceptability and accessibility. (Is it any wonder that instances of child porn and paedophilia are on the increase?)
This mainstreaming of sexual objectification is manifested more clearly in the other dimension of the female image – the porn queen. If you don’t go for the under-nourished, haven’t-had-a-carrot-stick-in-two-days look, then your other option is the pole dancing, Playboy bunny, Pamela Anderson look-alike. The rule is: you’re allowed curves as long as they’re silicone. Whether it’s Britney Spears gyrating in a school girl outfit or the Sex and the City girls doing only what the title suggests and little else, the mainstreaming of sex-on-legs dressed up as female empowerment is everywhere.
In Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy refers to the Pig as a woman who has decided that male objectification is cool, and enthusiastically adopts this as a way of feeling like a strong, confident individual – Jordan, Paris Hilton, and the Pussycat Dolls providing prime examples. As Nicole Scherzinger, front woman of the Pussycat Dolls, said, “at first, being raunchy was hard for me. I had a lot of insecurities, I was a small-town Catholic girl. This group helped me be more comfortable with myself.” Well thank goodness for liberation through raunchiness! Flash some flesh and you’ll gain self knowledge. As Levy writes, new feminism has been replaced by old objectification, making it not merely acceptable but admirable for rappers to describe women as hos and bitches and more, as camera angles zoom in on their gyrating, g-stringed bottoms and crammed cleavage whilst pimp posturing males gesture in the midst of this orgiastic melee.
And the far-reaching effects of this are palpable. Everyone knows the results of a UK survey asking girls aged 15-19 to name which female figures they aspired to emulate: 47% said Abit Titmuss and 33% said Jordan. When asked their ideal careers, 63% said glamour model and 25% said lap dancer, as opposed to the miniscule 4% that aspire to be a lawyer, 3% doctor, 3% teacher, 2% nurse.
So there are only two visions of the woman. One is the weak, half-starved, woman-child, the other is the cartoon, breasts-engorged sex vamp. At polar opposites seemingly, and yet they overlap and merge in subtle and disturbing ways. Both are sexual images and both suggest the controllability and passivity of women. But the question still remains; why are women in this supposedly enlightened and liberated era being constricted into two stereotyped, cardboard cut out images, and why do women allow this – even subscribe to and perpetuate it?
It has surely to do with historical precedents that have embedded in our psyche a way of viewing femininity so strongly that we are hardly conscious of it. Historically women have been isolated. We have always been removed from the action – from society, from politics, from having any economic status. An historical account of women’s alienation throughout the ages is hardly needed here, but Demosthenes, the Athenian orator, provides a good start, neatly summing up the role of women: “mistresses we have for pleasure, concubines for daily service to our bodies, but wives for the procreation of legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of the household”. In the sixteenth century the Protestant reformer John Knox famously wrote his treatise “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women” in protest of female rulers. Moving forward Schopenhaur wrote that “women, taken as a whole, are and remain thorough and incurable philistines…they are sexus sequior, the inferior second sex in every respect”, and even today the likes of Fay Weldon caution against excessive political and economic activity, warning women that if they want a career they must be prepared to risk ending up alone.
Thus effectively removed from a meaningful role in society women have become symbolic entities rather than real, living beings. From time immemorial images of women have been utilised to demarcate and reaffirm society’s boundaries and values. Gender identity is constructed through representation and whether designed to inspire or subdue, the created female image was and still is used for the purposes of control. For men, female images have been used to reaffirm their status and dominance, for women these images have been used to control and narrow the experience of womanhood.
For instance, from mediaeval times and beyond, the figure of the Virgin Mary was typically harnessed as a passive figure of compassion representing a standard of perfection no mortal could hope to attain, whilst the contrasting figure of Mary Magdalene was used to exemplify the weak, sinful woman, justifying female submission to male domination. And the sad truth is that we have not progressed from these one dimensional symbols of womanhood – replace the meek virgin with the limp anorexic and the sinful Magdalene with the sexual temptress Playbunny and there you have the modern day representations of womanhood.
The control these external forces have historically had on the female body explains why women subscribe and perpetuate the “beauty myth”, as Naomi Wolf termed it, today. The ideals and values of how a woman should look are so ingrained in both women and men, that we hardly realise these “norms” are dictated to us and not chosen by us. As Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the first British feminists, wrote in 1792, “taught from their infancy that beauty is a woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adore its prison”. And this is the powerful legacy we have to deal with today.
The implications of this portrayal of femininity are multiple. Firstly, it has divided women against themselves. The rise of the raunch culture under the banner of empowerment has duped some and confused others, as articulated by Ariel Levy. The problem stems from the fact that feminists have always had an ambivalent attitude to beauty and have failed to replace the obsession with the cellulite free perfect body with a viable and attractive alternative.
Feminists, then, find themselves in a catch 22: having argued that a woman’s attempt to cultivate her appearance makes her a cultural pawn, the plaything of men and a conniver in her own oppression, post-feminism (or third wave feminism) was supposed to reclaim the creative side of beautification as an outlet for choice and self-expression. And yet women are now trapped trying to live up to unattainable ideals and facing a crisis in defining a “third way” feminism; one that would walk the line between a rejection of all and any beauty practices and the extremes epitomised by today’s image-obsessed media. Meanwhile the obsession for physical perfection is symptomatic of a wider lack of identity and the vacuous culture of celebrity worship which has served only to reinforce the perception that what a woman represents and looks like is more important than who she is and what she does.
A woman’s body, then, does not belong to herself, but to society. The female body is a political entity – in a way that the male body never has been and probably never will be. It encapsulates today’s narrow sphere of existence, representing both achievement and failure – women and men are encouraged to lust over the perfect, “aspirational” body and to vilify the imperfect figure, providing a kind of awful social cohesion or consensus. By creating only one factory-made norm we have a clear and simple goal to work for, servicing both male and female needs. We must dutifully strive onwards, whether it is through acquiring this season’s key fashion items, maintaining an alfalfa-only diet, or investing in genital remodelling, this is woman’s true area of work where she can gain recognition from society. For a woman’s body represents her status, worth and self – she is judged on her body first and her achievements second. We can look up to women’s bodies, we can vilify them and we can purge ourselves through them in one collective, diet-infused catharsis.
So what are we to do? As politicians and health experts warn that by 2010 one in three UK adults will be obese, fifty per cent of the population have a different perspective on this. Women know that medically calculated ideal weights and body mass indexes are not relevant to the modern woman as a benchmark of “healthy weight”. This is clearly illustrated in the current debate on obesity, as out of the furore emerges an interesting statistic. The Men’s Health forum has warned that men are in denial about obesity. In a survey it found that approximately half of men who were overweight considered themselves to be normal weight – whereas the reverse was true of women. This, coupled with the fact that approximately 90-95% of anorexics are women paints a fairly grim view of woman’s so-called liberation.
Both the doe-eyed baby doll and the cartoon sex vamp are unthreatening, unreal creations of femininity. As the Playboy magnate Hugh Hefner says (quoted in Female Chauvinist Pigs) , “we are not interested in the mysterious, difficult woman… the Playboy girl… is naked, well-washed… and happy.” Good point Hugh, after all, who needs a real woman with all the complexity, ambiguity and excitement she has to offer?
Unless we want to perpetuate this portrayal of women that would have us as either a child or a pole dancer, unless we want to encourage an image of women that only exhausts us in our failure to achieve this botox perfection and diminishes our credibility and power, then women need to get a grip, and stop believing that surgery and starvation is liberation. Or else we could well end up being fly-swatted out of society once more by a mere lettuce leaf.